Presented for your approval, disapproval, concern, disturbance, dread, and/or befuddlement, here’s another story for Halloween. I hope it gives you nightmares. It certainly gave me one, dealing with Microsoft products to get it up here (even their own programs aren’t compatible with each other, and they all run slower than a sloth’s digestive system). Yet, stubborn as I am, I’ll still try to put one, possibly even two more up by Halloween. Anyway, this is long, but hopefully will be worth your time. As always, feedback is wonderful and much appreciated.
Now, let's go someplace dark.
1. Left Arm
When he found a hand sticking up through the tangle of dusty mason jars, chains, and mailboxes on the junk-shop table, Jack jumped back a bit. The thing was hiding behind a battered World War II era first aid kit, like something the medic had picked up on the battlefield and forgotten to unload. The medical kit was disturbing enough on its own -- the dark stains freckling it looked more like old blood than rust -- but the arm was far worse.
Jack's antiquing habit was a hold-over from his ex-girlfriend, Gwen, who used to drag him to all sorts of places, combing through the ninety-percent-trash some entrepreneur had thoughtfully piled up in some shithole-or-other. She'd get a good laugh out of seeing him still going to places like this, especially during bow season, but after he'd run into a few things that were up his alley -- vintage guns and tools and what-not -- Jack's trying-to-be-a-good-boyfriend patience had turned into a genuine interest that had outlived the relationship and, lately, had been verging on becoming expertise. He could even identify most types of wood at a glance now, and could tell you what old carnival glassware was worth even though he didn't have much use for the stuff himself.
Yeah, Gwen would be amused to see what she'd turned him into. But she wouldn't like that arm at all.
He leaned in, trying to get a better look at it. It wasn't easy in this place; the light itself looked antique here, brownish and worn out, spread over everything like syrup so you couldn't make out details. The shop even smelled dim, ghosts of stale potpourri and perfume caught in old dresses. The lighting had been bothering him even before he happened upon the arm; no place with as many paintings of creepy big-eyed-children should be so ill-lit. Making it worse, the lights were placed badly, throwing shadows all over at crazy tilted angles that made him feel like he was drunk in a funhouse.
There wasn’t a lot to see here, anyway; it was one of those places full of debris calling itself “antique” just because it was old -- Coke bottles somebody hoped you’d mistake for something valuable, stacks of mice-nibbled Richie Rich comics they wanted two bucks apiece for when a buck for the whole stack would be charity already. Maybe if you wanted a Village of the Giants lunchbox in poor condition or a depression-era kaiser blade or some ex-rental VHS you’d have a good day, but mostly this place stocked disappointment. It wasn't where Jack had been headed; he’d been trying to follow a Google map to another store when he spotted this one tucked away on a side street and decided to pull in and give it a look just as a what-the-hell. You never knew what you’d find in a what-the hell.
Boy howdy you wouldn’t.
The arm was made of wood -- walnut, Jack thought, from what he could see through the chipped white-folks-skin-colored paint and mahogany lighting -- and it didn’t seem to be a piece of a mannequin. Most of those were plaster, and this looked hand-carved. Hand-carved hand, he thought, moving aside an old blue glass jar to get a better look. Medical prosthetic? Could be. Kind of a sick thing to find selling as an antique, but you never knew what somebody’d try to move.
Wincing a little, Jack carefully reached behind the junk to pick it up. It was jointed, he saw, but the elbow was rigored in place, maybe by warp, maybe by flaked paint. He carefully flexed it and it moved with an ugly squeak and a dustfall of pinkish paint flecks. Well, it was no prosthesis, that was for sure; the end of the shoulder wasn’t cupped to fit over a stump, but sported a metal spike. The spike had little holes drilled into it, maybe for some kind of connections. Not a prosthesis, for sure. Jab that into someone it’d not only hurt like a bastard but probably compromise an artery and they’d bleed to death. Too high a price just for being symmetrical. But it still looked somehow medical.
The arm had good balance to it. It was a left arm, so Jack had to use his left to go hand-in-hand with it. He held it out and gave nobody a handshake. The fingers, too, were cunningly jointed; they moved like real fingers, but you had to really look to see the seams. Their movements were arthritic but smoother than the elbow, creaking just a little. He arranged them so the hand was flipping a bird and laughed to himself. It made the creepy damn thing just a little less creepy. He made it do a metal sign-of-the-horns and then folded it into a thumb’s up and did a Fonz “ayyyy!” to himself.
Opening the fingers back out, he carried the arm through the shop, carefully threading his way through the maze of precarious junk. The building was just the good side of condemned, and it was saved from feeling like a shed mostly by the air conditioning --- a window unit that fit right in with the other antiques, rattling like a lawnmower that had crashed through and wasn’t giving up just because it was wedged.
The only other person in the place was a little old lady at the counter. Jack was on his best behavior with her, because he knew he didn’t look like an antiquer with his beard and grimy trucker cap and old Pantera tee-shirt. She’d probably be a little scared, being alone in the place with a guy like him, and he didn’t like to make people nervous. She didn’t seem afraid, though, ignoring him and working on a crossword puzzle in the newspaper. Using a pen, Jack noted. He never had that kind of confidence with crosswords, and wouldn’t try sudoku at all. An old TV hooked to a VCR next to her flickered out a movie, one of the Bad News Bears sequels, he wasn’t sure which one but he knew it wasn’t the original because he had every frame of that one memorized. The tracking was bad, doing a Silly Putty job on Tanner Boyle’s head.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Jack said, with the deference of one intruding on something far more important, “can you tell me what this is?”
She looked up, adjusted her glasses, and winced. “Awful is what that is.”
Jack laughed. “Yes ma’am, agree with you there. But what’s the story on it?”
“I don’t really know. It’s just been back there on that shelf behind the jars ever since the store’s been here. I hardly go back in that corner, gives me the creeps. My brother owns this place and he likes all sorts of ick. For a long time he had a Japanese helmet full of holes from where a hand grenade went off. Couldn’t abide being near that knowing a fella must’ve died in it, even if it was the enemy. Somebody icky as my brother bought it finally. What a happy day that was.” She jabbed her pen toward the arm. “Be another happy day you buy that. My brother’d probably want something silly but I’ll give it to you for ten just to wave bye-bye to it.”
Jack made the hand wave and the lady laughed. Her teeth looked antique, too. Jeez, maybe the dim lighting wasn’t such a bad idea after all. “What is it, though?” he asked. “I’d think mannequin, but it looks hand-carved.”
“I really don’t know. My brother knows the stuff here better than I do. I’m just filling in for him. He’s usually in on Saturdays but his daughter’s just had a baby. He don’t open up much anymore but Saturdays. Can’t work much anymore. Got emphysema.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
The lady shrugged and waved her pen dismissively. “Just lucky it ain’t cancer, really, damnfool way he used to smoke. It’s bad, but it never stops him from talking your ear off. He’d probably be able to tell you more about that nasty ol’ thing than you’d even want to know, he was here. He’s so glad to see anybody come in to talk to, he’ll corner you. Talk the breath out of himself.”
Jack nodded. A lot of junk-shop staff were like that, starved to find anyone interested, ready to show off their collections. Even crap like this. Jack looked around and saw pocket knives and old campaign buttons -- the oldest being for Gerald Ford -- and unraveling wicker chairs he wasn’t sure were for sale or just for customers who wanted to sit down and rest. A plastic clock on the wall, its Plexiglas aged to amber, read 6:30, probably because of gravity. Against a wall was a 70’s era Playboy Bally pinball machine. A piece of paper taped to it bragged the feature, “DOESN’T WORK.” Yet another stack of VHS tapes were piled on it, and Jack was relieved to see Titanic and Jerry Maguire among them. He’d never been to a shop that didn’t have those. If a store had one VHS tape, it was Titanic. If they had two, hello Jerry. At some point copies of each must’ve been mailed to every American, maybe shrink-wrapped to your phone book.
He looked back down at the arm and turned it over. The balance was really amazing, and, disturbing as it was, the craftsmanship was incredible. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to own the thing, but it was too strange and unique to just walk away from it. “You know, I’m interested in wood carving, especially vintage stuff.”
“I’d say that was pretty old,” she said. “This store’s been here nearly forty years and I can’t remember not seeing that thing, and it was old every time. Wouldn’t surprise me if it was pre-20th century, even. Just by a hair.”
“Ten bucks, you say.” Jack gnawed his lip.
She nodded. “Flat ten. But I ain’t gonna give you more than that to haul it out of here.”
He laughed, dug in his pocket, peeled off a ten, tucked it between the arm’s wooden fingers, and extended it to her.
She screwed up her face and made a goat-being-raped noise, picking the bill from the wooden hand like she was taking it from a tarantula. He laughed as she tucked it away in the cash register and made a big show of wiping her hands on her pants and shirt. “Now, get that thing out of here!” she laughed.
“Good luck sleepin’ with that in your house!” she called as he left the shop, laughing and waving the arm.
When Jack got home he played with the arm a while, admiring the craftsmanship, and ran a few searches on the Internet to see what it might be. Uncovering nothing, he tucked it on a shelf in his woodshop and forgot about it for almost six months.
2. Right Arm
Jack was never very comfortable with estate sales. They felt -- hell, were -- ghoulish, and there seemed to be some kind of bad karma attached to a dead person’s things. After all, they hadn’t brought them any luck. And this house had a weird tang in the air, like maybe the deceased had lain in one of the back rooms getting soft for a week or so before anyone found them. Fat flies tapped at the windows of the place, maybe born there. He felt like a tolerated burglar, prowling through someone’s old life.
There was a lot of nice stuff here. Whoever-it-was hadn’t died of poor taste. But it just wasn’t his kind of stuff. If he were a vase-and-pitcher guy, or a German-Black-Forest-clocks guy, he’d make quite a haul, but that wasn’t his thing. He was here now, though, and had gotten up early for it, so he might as well keep looking. He milled around, thumbing through stacks of books and getting nothing out of them but the feeling that he and the deceased would have had a hard time finding much to talk about.
A young blonde woman -- a relative? -- must’ve intuited that he felt out of place because she said, “There’s more stuff in the basement you might find interesting.” Her smile was timid and sympathetic.
“Oh... sure, thank you,” Jack said, looking around. “How would I find it?”
“Through that door, into the kitchen. Then there’s a sign pointing to the stairs. You can’t miss it, but if you do, pop back in and I’ll lead you.”
“Will do. Thank you,” he said, and touched the bill of his cap, then decided it wasn’t respectful to wear it at all in a house of bereavement and took it off and tucked it in his pocket, embarrassed. He sucked in his gut and slipped past a very fat man who was holding up a ball of crystal and frowning into it, like he was seeing his future and disapproving. Probably something cardiac and soon, Jack thought, judging by the way the guy huffed and puffed whenever he had to move. Which he seemed to have no plans of doing. Jack edged around him and found the basement door immediately on entering the kitchen, where ladies were going through silverware and plates and talking too loud.
The basement was cluttered, though not inappropriately, and the contents were a little more interesting. There was a toolkit, but all he found in it were the basics, shit to put your Ikea together. There was a small plastic box of fishing tackle, but nothing he didn’t already have; in fact, it was almost all lures he’d had bad luck using.
And there, rising from a cardboard box of old garden hoses as if drowning beneath them, was an upthrust arm. He stared at it, blinking.
A man looking over a bread-making machine on the other side of the room said, “Hey, buddy, need a hand?”
Jack looked up and said, “No, I’m...” then got it and snorted and shook his head.
“Sorry, dumb joke, but I hadta,” the man said. “I mean, you know.” He nodded at the arm. “Kinda startling, isn’t it? Don’t worry, there’s nobody under the hoses. I checked.”
Jack picked up the arm, already knowing what the other end would look like. Yep, a metal spike, fluted with holes. A right arm this time. The paint was in better shape overall, and it was a little more flexible than the other, though it still creaked as he moved the joints and pivoted the wrist. “Any idea what this could be part of?”
“Store mannequin, I thought,” the man said. “Darn old one.”
“Could be, but it’s hand-carved, from wood. Most store mannequins are, like, plaster.”
The guy put the bread machine down and picked up another appliance, something Jack thought might be a Cuisinart. “Maybe you’re right. Don’t know what else it could be, though. Thought first it might replace a limb somebody left in France in World War I, but that spear at the end leaves that out. Might be off some cigar-store Indian.”
Not painted like a white man, Jack thought but didn’t say, not wanting to be argumentative. “Guess so, maybe,” he said, turning it over.
The guy laughed. “You’re not thinking of buying it, are you?”
Jack laughed. “Yeah. I’ve kind of got to.”
“Yep,” Jack said, heading up the basement steps with the arm cocked on his shoulder like a rifle. “I’ve got the left one at home.” That got a laugh.
The blonde woman looked disturbed that he wanted the thing but decided five dollars was plenty for it. He asked her for information about it, explaining that he had another at home, and she was intrigued by the story but, unfortunately, the only person who’d know where the thing had come from had been buried last month. She was a relative but had no idea her late uncle even had such a thing in the house. The other family members had been even less close to her uncle than she was, so there was no hope that they’d know anything about it.
Jack put it in the back of his truck (he couldn’t bear to have it in the cab with him) and drove home.
It was an exact match for the other. Same size, same craftsmanship, undeniably from the same artist... and artist was the word. He’d wrought flesh from wood. The fingers could hold a pencil as well as his own, the hands interlaced, the thumbs twiddled. It was like sitting at his kitchen table with someone invisible from the shoulders on. And he didn’t like it a bit.
But he was more curious than ever. He hit the Internet again and tried more searches, everything he could think of. “Antique wooden arm” pulled up parts of chairs and little else, but he pored over any pertinent results he could scrape together. He got lots of info, but nothing that matched what was on his table.
3. Right Leg
A pounding on the door woke Jack from an unintended nap. He’d been getting lousy sleep ever since he’d found that other arm and had drifted off on the couch as soon as he’d made it home from work.
The pounding again, more obnoxious than knocking, and a voice yelled, “Open up, it’s the piiiigs!”
Dwight. Normally he’d have laughed at Dwight’s way of announcing himself (even though the fact that he did the same thing every time he came over had worn some of the funny off of it) but the dream he’d been awakened from was too horrible to let anything be very humorous. His hands had been stiffening and creaking, and when he flexed them the skin had split, cracked, and flaked away like old paint, showing walnut where there should have been bloody meat. When he made fists they creaked like the door of a haunted house.
“Open up! It’s the piiigs!” Dwight howled, and Jack rolled off the couch and answered the door.
Dwight really was the pigs, or Highway Patrol, anyway, close enough. He was also big into hunting and fishing, which was how Jack had met him. Jack was a sometimes salesman, sometimes mechanic of outboard motors, and Dwight had started out as a customer. He was a little guy, full of twitchy energy, and didn’t seem like a Highway Patrolman at all. In all their years of hunting, fishing, and hanging out, Jack had only seen him in uniform twice. It had been a disorienting sight both times, like Dwight was playing a prank on the force. His uniform should have come with a plastic pumpkin full of candy.
Strangely for someone as rednecky as Dwight, he had a love of British sitcoms. His method of announcing himself at the door was a steal from an episode of The Young Ones, a series he’d made Jack watch every episode of over beers on a couple of weekends, just so someone would get his references.
“’ello, Neil,” Jack said, opening the door and pinching his eyes. “Come on in, take the tit off your head.”
“’Owdy, Vyv,” Dwight said, doing a football-hand-off with a six-pack of Coors as he stepped in. “Looks like maybe I woke your ass up, and it’s only, what?” He glanced at the television. “Andy Griffith’s still on, dude, it ain’t even seven yet. What the hell, the motorboatin’ biz running you that ragged?”
“Nah, I’ve been getting crap sleep,” Jack said, wrenching off a beer and opening it as he sat back on the couch. The couch felt damp. He felt damp. Damn, that dream had put him in a cold sweat.
Dwight waved the bow-hunting video he’d borrowed and dropped by to return at Jack, then set it on the coffee table. “Beer’ll help with that,” Dwight said, pulling one and dropping into a chair as he cracked it open. “Hell, beer helps with everything. 'Cept the shit it don't, but in sufficient quantities it helps you not care about that.”
“Thing is, I don’t know if I want to sleep. I keep having weird dreams.”
Dwight frowned. “I had one of those last night. Big bull alligator got in my house and I’d shoot at it but the bullets would just fall out of the gun.”
“Experts’ll tell you that’s a sign of sexual inadequacy.”
“Them experts, they know their shit,” Dwight sighed. “I ain’t been gettin’ laid worth a toot. So, what you been dreaming?”
“It’s stuff about these things I bought. I got these wooden arms.”
“Yeah.” Jack told him about the junkshop six or seven months ago, and then the estate sale last week. Dwight frowned and tore through his beer and then took another. He seemed bothered by it, not laughing it off the way he did most other things.
“Yeesh, man. Not sure I want to, but can I see ‘em?”
“Sure. Yeah. I boxed them up and put them in the shop.” Jack drained his beer and took another along as they went out to the shop. He didn’t like the idea of actually looking at those arms again, but the hope that Dwight might have some ideas about what they were overrode his fear. If nothing else, maybe he could make fun of them. He took them out and laid them on a workbench, then lifted one and held it out to Dwight.
Dwight looked a little pale and shook his head and said, “I’d just as soon not,” then rubbed his hands on his pant-legs like he’d touched the damn thing anyway. “You got any idea at all what those things were used for?”
“I was hoping you’d know,” Jack said, putting the arm down again. Dwight wagged his head. “I’ve been looking all over the Internet. I took pictures of them and posted them to every antique forum I go to, and even a few weird ones I don’t, hoping somebody would know something. I got a few guesses along the obvious lines -- store dummies or what-not -- and comments on the level of craftsmanship, or just people saying ‘That’s creepy, I wouldn’t have them in my house.’ But so far nobody knows anything.”
“You’d have to put me down as one of the ‘that’s creepy I wouldn’t have them in my house’ folks,” Dwight said, leaning down for a closer look and wincing. “Shit, cuz, them things set spiders crawling up my behind.”
“Yeah, they’re disturbing,” Jack said, opening the beer. “They gave me the creeps from the beginning, but now that I’ve had these dreams about them, it’s getting worse.” He took a long slug of beer and stared at the arms. “The first night I got them home I dreamed I heard something clattering around in the hall and it was them, marching up and down on their palms.”
“Shit, don’t tell me stuff like that.” Dwight turned away and did a repulsed gesture.
Jack snorted. “You seem even more creeped out by them than me.”
“I think I am,” Dwight said. “Don’t know if I ought to tell you how come, though.”
“What do you mean?”
Dwight set his mouth in a hard line, took a deep breath, and let it out, glaring at the arms. “I got some land, way out,” he said, waving an arm in the general direction of far-off-somewhere. “I inherited it from my grandpa. Or my daddy did, I guess, although daddy don’t care nothin’ about it so he says it’s mine, said Grandpa talked about wanting me to have it. It was really my Great-Grandpa’s. It’s a bunch of acres, maybe a hundred, I don’t know. Probably not worth much because it’s so far off the ass-end of the boonies, just a bunch of old fields grown up. I never got interested enough to try to do anything with it other than go deer-hunt on it sometimes. Haven’t even done that in, lord, must be three, four years.
“Anyhow, it’s all grown up, old farmhouse and rotten-ass barn, probably fallen down by now if some tornado or other ain’t blown it off altogether. Buncha old-school farming shit in that barn. I’m talking the whole place never even saw electricity.”
Dwight rubbed his hands on his pants again and looked at the arms. Jack wondered where all this was going, and why Dwight looked so rattled. Dwight was a goof and this wasn’t like him at all. But Jack waited, feeling dread roll in like a tide, knowing this story was all going somewhere, and somewhere bad.
“Used to scare the shit out of me as a kid when we’d go out there,” Dwight said. “We only went a few times. I didn’t even remember it clearly until I saw those motherfuckers.” He gestured toward the arms, violently enough to slosh his beer out onto the floor. “Sorry,” he said, smearing the foam into the concrete with a toe. “Even Grandpa didn’t live at the place, he lived in town. We just went out there visiting Great-Grandpa once, camping, pretty much. Shit, I’d forgotten all this.” He laughed. “It’s stupid.”
“What?” Jack prompted.
“Well, out in that barn,” Dwight said. “Scared the piss out of me when I was a kid, but out in that barn is a leg I swear to Jesus would match those arms.”
Jack frowned. “Speaking of legs, you sure you ain’t pulling mine, now?”
Dwight shook his head and drew a cross on his heart.
“Because it’d be a real good one if you were.”
“Yeah it would, but no I ain’t.” He nodded at the arms. “I haven’t seen it since I was maybe eight years old, and threw some old seed-sacks over it so I wouldn’t have to see it even then, but I swear to you, I remember it looking just damn like that.”
“Think we could go look for it?”
Dwight sighed. “Yeah, I guess. Don’t know why you’d want it, though. Ain’t those bad enough? Sheez. I feel eight years old all over again, seeing that.”
“Yeah, I don’t like ‘em, either. In fact, I’m starting to hate ‘em, but these things keep showing up and it makes me curious. I gotta know what the deal is. I can’t find out any info on them so all I can do is collect them and hope something turns up.”
“Well, my Granddaddy’s dead, but I remember he didn’t have any idea where that leg came from. But it used to give him the jeebies, too. Don’t know why his daddy kept ahold to it, other than he was a packrat from hell anyhow. That barn and house were piled up with all manner of foo-fer-aw. I probably should’ve taken you out there before now, Mr. Antiques Roadshow. Just didn’t think about it.”
“Well, let’s drive out and look around this weekend, then.”
Dwight nodded. “I reckon we could. I could swear that leg had to be from the same guy. What are the odds?”
“I’m thinking maybe these things are from something more common than they look, if the parts are showing up all over the place. I mean, all three couldn’t be parts of the same body. The odds of me meeting up with three of them? Crazy.”
“What’s crazy is you even wanting them,” Dwight said. “How ‘bout putting them back in the box?”
Jack did, and shoved the box back under the workbench, and they went in and finished the beer, neither really looking forward to Saturday.
* * *
Dwight’s granddaddy’s farm was as lonely as any place Jack had ever been, way out in drive-through country. Most of the dwellings they’d passed in the past half hour or so had been ominously empty, a few shabby little houses that some realty company or other tended enough to keep them from being completely overgrown, and rusty trailers peeking through weeds like the bones of something that’d crawled out there to die. One Jack particularly got a bad feeling from was ‘60’s vintage and had a weird sunburst design painted on it. Another rust-bled wreck still sported a now-absurd “For Sale” sign whose hope had probably died around the same time Jimi Hendrix did.
Dwight finally took a turn onto a dirt road off the main highway, and looking down it, Jack almost decided he didn’t want to go anymore. He didn’t say so, though, because it probably wouldn’t be too hard to talk Dwight into bailing on this expedition. He wasn’t anxious to see that leg again.
Dwight’s 4X4 pickup was getting a chance to show off, bouncing over washed-out roadway, running down intrusive saplings, getting lashed by overhanging limbs. “Shit, I need to come down here more often just to keep the road from getting reclaimed,” Dwight said. He went into a Discovery-Channel-announcer’s voice and said, “Man versus nature, the age old struggle!”
A great boiling of flies swarmed above something just out of sight in the roadside weeds. “Bet there’s plenty of deer out here,” Jack said, bracing a hand against the dashboard.
“Oh you betcha, herds of fat boys! I get lucky most times I come out here. Don’t know why I don’t come out more often. Hell, if you’re willing to close an eye to it, I’m willing to pop one out of season if the opportunity presents itself today.”
“It’s your land and you’re the law.”
“I am the law!” Dwight roared in a movie-trailer voice, bouncing through a puddle that almost amounted to a small pound. Jack couldn’t remember any recent rain but it still held water, and the tires spun ominously, zshusking for a second before catching and driving the truck forward again. He took out his cellphone and checked for a signal, suddenly thinking how badly it’d suck to get stranded out here. The phone was as flatline as if they were on Venus. “You ain’t gone get no signal out here,” Dwight said, noticing the phone. “If I had a GPS in this thing, it’d be wigging out hard right now. ‘Whar you goin’, city boy?’”
“You ain’t kiddin’,” Jack said. “Appreciate you still brought your deer rifle along even if you suddenly get a conscience about the out-of-season thing.”
“Scared of hearing banjo music?” Dwight laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ve never seen anybody anywhere near this place. Creepiest thing we got to worry about is finding that damn leg. And ain’t that enough?”
Jack nodded. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to see another limb. It’d be too close to putting together a whole body. And a body of what? What was he inviting into his house? Probably just some art some whittler made. Maybe it was a department store dummy after all, a do-it-yourself project. That was the best guess he’d gotten online from some guy who actually specialized in collecting such.
A big black dog ran across the road far ahead of them. Jack wasn’t sure Dwight had seen it, but Dwight said, “Isn’t that supposed to be a bad omen? Black dog?”
“I think that’s for truckers,” Jack said.
“What you think we’re in, motherfucker, a Pre-nis?”
Jack laughed. “That’s Prius.”
“I know what the shit’s called. I’m being witty. And derogatory. I was comparing, like, a little shit car to the male genital organ.”
“Oh, I got it,” Jack said. “Didn’t, like, clap or nothin’, but I got it. Anyhow, I think the black dog deal is about an eighteen-wheeler truck, not four wheeler,” Jack said. “That’s what the Patrick Swayze movie was about, anyhow.”
“Truck’s a truck, black dog’s a black dog,” Dwight said. “And Patrick Swayze ain’t around to ask. He‘s bouncing at that great roadhouse in the sky.”
“You got a point there.”
“Yep. Keep my hat on, though, maybe nobody’ll notice.”
“How much further out is this place?”
“Somewhar’s twixt a f’r-piece and a lil’-bit,” Dwight drawled, wrestling the truck through another bad spot that made them slam-dance in the cab for a second. “Whoo!”
“I was just thinking, we gotta drive back out over this same road.”
Dwight laughed. “You gettin’ old if this ain’t fun, son!”
“Maybe. Too old to walk all the way back to town, anyhow, if this truck throws a U-joint or something. It’s getting rattled awfully hard.”
“Naw, she’s solid. Might lose a fender or two. Get a wheel cockeyed. Pick up nothin’ but rap on the radio. But, we’ll get back a’ight.”
“So you say.”
“I am the law!” Dwight yelled again.
Suddenly the woods thinned into an overgrown field and a few hundred yards away was a derelict house and a calamity of timbers and rust that might’ve been a barn when Taft was a president. “Looks like we’re here, anyhow.”
“Yep,” Dwight said. “The time away hasn’t been good to the house. Look at that. Ain’t that some sadness?”
The house had its back broken. The line of the roof sagged in the middle, and a lot of the roof tiles had fallen away, exposing beams like ribs showing through holes in a carcass’s hide. A big tree was growing into the side of it, trying to bully it over, or possibly holding it up. The widows were black and empty, the eyes of the last dog in the pound. It was the most-haunted-looking haunted house Jack had ever seen, and that counted the ones painted on the covers of horror novels. He didn’t really want to get any closer to it.
“You know, we might find the rest of that wooden dummy up in the attic,” Dwight said. “Feel like going through it?”
“Boy, you better be kidding,” Jack said.
“Don’t worry, I am, indeed,” Dwight said. “You dare me I might try stepping in the living room, but ain’t even a double-dog would make me go higher than the first floor. In fact, I’m gonna watch my farting if I got my back to that place. Might blow it over.”
“I don’t think I’ll turn my back on it anyway.”
“Spookhouse-lookin’, ain’t it? And yet I played with my Hot Wheels on the living room floor of that joint. Wasn’t much else to do. They didn’t even have a TV. Damn old-school, Great-Granddaddy was.” Dwight parked the truck under an old pecan tree and stopped.
“Think we can even get into that barn?”
“Yeah. It’s all tougher than it looks, or storms would’ve taken them down. I wouldn’t go kicking things or whatever, but it should hold up. Just gotta watch for snakes. Hell, that kudzu’s probably holding it together pretty good.” Thick green vines covered half the structure like a tidal wave caught in the act of crashing. Jack could smell them, fresh and sappy as he opened the door and got out. A smell so green you could taste it, like well-water.
He’d never liked kudzu much; they way it covered old dwellings and took their shape bothered him, like bones sleeping under a morgue sheet. A bird shits a seed in an uninhabited place and a couple of years later it’s washed away under a creeping tsunami, hiding all, covering god-knows-what. There could be Nazi ovens under the stuff and you’d never know. Dwight gestured toward a lump of it. “If I remember right, there’s a vintage tractor buried under that stuff, somewhere. There’s a museum piece for you, if you feel like hacking through. I’ve got a machete behind the seat.”
“Yeah, no thanks.”
Dwight dug out the machete anyway and hooked it to his belt. “For snakes,” he said, then took his deer rifle off the gun rack. “I’m remembering a tractor, anyway. Spindly orange thing. But the memory’s old and shaky now. Could be anything under there.”
It was easy enough to imagine an old tractor buried in that lush green cocoon, probably rusted into a solid unit now, but Jack wasn’t about to find out. He felt too old for this now, because it wasn’t fun, son. “Well, let’s go see if there’s a leg.”
Dwight nodded and they parted a kudzu curtain and entered the barn. Sunlight built dust-columns through what little was left of the roof and the smell of wood-rot was strong and somehow pleasant, loamy, a scent you could plant potatoes in. Buckets, lanterns, and equipment to be dragged behind tractors were all over the place, rusting in peace. A snakeskin nearly five feet long lay tangled in the discs of a harrow like a party streamer. “Don’t want to meet that bad boy,” Dwight said, beaming his flashlight on it. He scanned the beam around onto some burlap sacking behind a hay-rake, its spines arching up like the ribs of a rotten fish. “Well, shit, there ya go. I’m pretty sure that leg’s under those sacks. Right where I tossed them more than twenty years ago so I wouldn’t have to see it.”
Jack stepped up to the hay-rake and peered over it. “Couldn’t talk you into getting it for me, could I?”
Dwight snorted. “No sir. Not unless you suddenly unzip your Jack Wesson suit and a naked Megan Fox steps out, wanting to fuck the first fella who can provide her with a wooden haint-leg.”
Jack peeked down his shirt. “Well, shit. No zipper. And normal thumbs.”
"Shit, dude, lay off the girl. She's from Tennessee, we're lucky she's got thumbs at all. I don't care if she's got toe thumbs, I'd suck them deformed piggies. I'd crawl through broken glass just to wave at the truck that hauls her used Kotex to the dump."
"You're all class, Dwight. All heart, too." He sighed and looked at the sacking again. “Okay, I figured I’d have to do this. Had to ask, though. Let me see your machete.”
Dwight handed it over and Jack picked through the burlap with the point, peeling back layers, raising a dusty smell that clawed at the back of his throat and made him cough. He cursed and peeled away a few more sacks.
Then there it was.
It looked gangrenous, the paint faded completely corpse-white and streaked with algae from rain. Jack didn’t want to touch it, but knew he had to. He had to take it home and put it with the arms, because, even in this state, it was clearly part of the same body. And something was happening here and he had to play it out to the end. Sighing, he stabbed the machete into the ground, reached over the tines of the hay-rake, and grabbed the leg by the ankle. It felt like cold, slimy flesh and he wanted to drop it and vomit, but that’d only prolong things, so he pried it out of its burlap grave.
Dwight had his back turned, still not wanting to see the thing. “Was it there? You got it?’
“Yeah,” Jack said, standing it up. It was worse than the arms, mostly because there was so much more of it. The carving was still masterful, though; he could see where muscles were tendoned as if there were bone at the core of that wood. He leaned on it and the ankle gave a little with an ugly creak.
Dwight glanced back. “Yep, that’s it. Fuck. I’m eight years old here. Think it’s the same?”
“It’s got the same workmanship, the same metal cone joint, with the holes bored in it. Gotta be.”
“Figured that. I was halfway hoping I’d mis-remembered it, because now the whole situation is just too damn weird.”
“Yeah,” Jack said. They took it out to the truck and dumped it into the bed. They pretended everything was still okay and went to the farmhouse and peered through the broken windows at a lot of old furniture and other items ruined by rain. Something they heard more than saw crept off into the darkness of the building, possum or raccoon, they supposed. Even with the deer rifle, they didn’t want to go investigate. A hornet’s nest the size of a Godzilla egg hung from a light fixture, and even though it looked dead they used it as yet another excuse not to go in. There may have been a few small water-proof type items -- utensils, plates, and the like -- that would still be valuable, but Jack wasn’t really into searching the place. He didn’t even want to go through the tools in the barn, and Dwight didn’t press the issue.
No deer presented themselves, either, so the leg was the only dead thing they carried away from the lonely field.
4. Left Leg
Finding the left leg was the worst of all, because a dream told him where it would be.
Jack had cleaned up the right leg -- most of the painted skin had sloughed off -- and he'd taken pictures of it and added them to his online postings. Still no one had any solid answers but plenty were getting intrigued. And a few weirdoes were coming (out of the woodwork, Jack thought, wishing he could laugh) with sick theories about "Aleister Crowley's robots" and voodoo fetishes and witchcrafty shit and Bible quotes in which Jack could find no pertinence. Some just seemed to want to scare him with ghost stories. The pictures seemed to be stirring up people's imaginations.
Worst, it was stirring up his own, and in unhealthy directions. His sleep was full of morbid dreams, things alien to his mind, such as waking up to find the flesh rotting off his arms like wet moldy bread, cheesy, stinking and falling away to leave skeleton arms that would need replacing with the spare parts waiting in his shop. He also dreamed of finding more arms and realized he wasn't building a person at all. Maybe they were part of some goddess Kali, and that was as sinister as the Aleister Crowley idea. The level of workmanship did suggest an idol, and he wasn't comfortable with that idea.
Sometimes he woke up from a dream and the dry creaks of the house settling were easy to mistake for something else. He'd lay open-eyed in the dark, thinking of getting up, going to the back yard, building a fire, seeing if they'd writhe. But he couldn't. Though the missing parts plagued his mind with a nagging dread, he knew he had to collect them. And he knew now that he would. It wasn't a coincidence anymore. They were drawn to him.
He'd gone looking for the antique store where he'd bought the left arm, hoping to catch the emphysemic brother at work and see if he knew anything... but he’d driven all over the area and he couldn’t find the store again. He found where he thought it had been but there was nothing there; not closed, just no place that ever could have been the store. He was almost certain he’d found the right street, but he had to be wrong. But how could he be, in such a little mousehole of a town?
The whole search had made him feel frustrated and crazy, and he had more than enough of that already. He’d begun to accept the craziness. And that’s why when a dream told him where to find the other leg, he’d decided to go there, absurd as it was.
He recognized the bridge in the dream. It was a little thing, spanning a creek in a neighborhood he’d been in a couple of years ago with Gwen, driving slowly and noting everything in the early morning hours while they looked for some yard sale. He decided to go in the early morning hours this time, too, since poking around under a bridge might be seen as crazyperson behavior, and the fewer neighbors he encountered, the better.
He hoped it would just be crazyperson behavior, because actually finding a leg under an obscure bridge a dream had led him to would mean something for-real supernatural was going on, and Jack wasn’t so sure he could handle that. He wanted to be wrong.
But he had to know. So he woke himself up at 4:30 a.m. on a workday and drove out about thirty miles to the neighborhood. He remembered the bridge well because it had been covered in balloons and a “YARD SALE” sign when he’d been there with Gwen.
He missed Gwen. It would have been good to have her with him on this mission. She’d been a headstrong, spunky chick, pretty fearless, and she’d probably have made fun of him for this. But she’d have gone along with it anyway, and that would have made him feel better.
He’d probably still be dating her if she hadn’t gotten that other job and moved to Austin. He wondered why they hadn’t kept up communication the way they’d said they would. They should still be good friends, at least, but not even a Christmas card had passed between them. Of course, half of that was his fault. Staying in touch wasn’t all her responsibility, and he didn’t make it easy, being Facebook-resistant. She was probably busy with some other guy now, maybe even married. Thinking about it gave him a sad ache, like hunger in his chest. He kept seeing her eyes, the color of warm honey, changing shape when she smiled. He missed seeing them.
It was depressing to think about it as he drove, but he welcomed it because it was better than thinking about what he was doing, the lunacy of it, the greater-than-lunacy if it were successful. He decided he’d use the whole thing as an excuse to drop Gwen a line, whatever happened. Maybe even call her. He’d love hearing that voice again. It was warm honey, too. She’d be amused to find him still antiquing. He wondered how much of it was a way to cling to an activity he’d shared with her, and decided that might even be most of it. When he drove to some odd store somewhere, it was like she was still in the truck with him. He always thought about how she’d react to a store or the things he saw there. His hobby helped keep something of her around.
Maybe she’d have some idea what these wooden limbs were about. She knew far more about these things, and if she didn’t know she could do a better job of finding out. Her intelligence had scared him sometimes, it was like wildfire, devouring information. He wondered why a girl like her had ever been interested in a guy like him in the first place, and that bummed him out.
“I’m a nice enough guy,” he said to the truck. And that was true enough. Maybe it’d been enough for Gwen. It wasn’t like she was going to find an equal, anyway. Not around here. Probably not in Austin, either, although he hoped she’d come closer there. She deserved it.
Warm honey. Maybe whiskey. He’d gotten drunk staring into them.
Finding an ache inside and picking at it was a helluva way to distract him from what he was doing. But it worked. Tormenting himself with something he seldom dwelled upon whiled away the time, but time still moved, and eventually he parked by the bridge. The light was dim, the sky just starting to go from black to grey. Everything was very still here; he’d expected insects, maybe frogs from the creek below, but there was nothing. Tall weeds striped his pants with dew as he climbed down, flashlight in hand.
The night was still hiding under the bridge. It was pitch under there, just as it’d been in his dream, and stank of oil and creosote, like the train ride at Six Flags. The whole thing was too much like his dream.
Including the leg. It was laying there, bent at the knee, right behind one of the tarred pilings.
Yes, it was there. Of course it was. Banged-up and paint-chipped but obviously part of the same set.
Jack took it, threw it in the back of his truck. He didn’t know how he drove home but that’s where he ended up so it must have happened.
The next week a package came in the mail. There was no return address, just a few spidery symbols that looked a little like fraternity names, but weren’t. He thought return addresses were required to mail a package in Patriot Act America, but this had been shipped from someplace in England. If they required them, then the sender had used invisible ink or engineered a label that’d flake off early. Dread told him what was inside so he didn’t even open it, just called Dwight.
Dwight showed up with beer -- a case this time, and a bottle of Chivas, too, since it was Friday and safe to make a night of it -- and he’d agreed to open the package for him, admitting that the under-bridge retrieval had been enough ordeal for Jack to go through.
“I figure somebody left that leg for me under the bridge. I don’t know how they made me dream about it, but it was in too good a shape to have been under there long,” Jack said. The left leg had been dry, even cobwebbed, like it’d been residing in some attic before being stashed under the bridge. “And if this is what I think it is, I’m guessing somebody saw one of my online posts and mailed it to me. I post under my real name and e-mail, I’d be easy enough to track down.”
“Probably so,” Dwight said, grimly slitting the tape on the box. “I’m still hoping this is gonna be some shit you E-bayed and forgot about. I’d giggle ‘til I shit my pants if this turns out to be a spice rack.”
“I’d love nothing better, but I’m pretty sure the only real mystery here is, body or head? Or both?”
Dwight grunted to avoid any other answer and dug through the packing material -- weird papers covered with some kind of chickenscratch foreign language -- and lifted out a torso.
It was in the best shape of any of the parts, but the most horrible. Mostly because it sported a rubber penis. That wasn’t in good shape; rubber didn’t hold up nearly as well as wood, and it was dry-rotted almost off, littering the tabletop with faded pink crumbs. Dwight dropped it back in the box and jumped back, rubbing his hands on his pants. “Aw, cripes! Did it really need to have a dick?”
“That is the nastiest fucking thing,” Jack said. “Jeez, did they even make sex toys back in the 20’s or whenever?”
“Humans being humans,” Dwight said, “I’m pretty sure the dildo and pocket-pussy probably got invented sometime right after the spear and a way to make fire. It’d surprise me if they didn’t predate the wheel. People would rather fuck than go somewhere.” Dwight waved his hands at the thing. “Hell, ten minutes after some scientist developed rubber he probably said, ‘Hey, let’s make us a dick!’”
“You're probably right. I don’t want that shit crumbling on my table, though, shit. I eat there.” Jack went for a paper towel and a garbage can to sweep the rubber shards into. "No telling where that thing's been. Up Aleister Crowley's ass for all I know."
Dwight craned his neck, peering at the shoulder and hip joints. “I’m damn sure those arms and legs are gonna socket right in there. Jesus, look at that neck, though.”
Jack swept the rubber flakes into the trash with a careful-but-repulsed jerk, like he was dealing with a colony of lice, and then looked at the neck. A series of metal spikes and sharp-looking tubes sprouted from it, gleaming like the ends of mortuary equipment. They looked like serious business, conduits, more than just connections to keep a wooden head from falling off. “Look at that. This has to be some kind of early robot. Android, humanoid, something. Some woodcarver read too many issues of Amazing Stories and took them too seriously. Tried to build a fuck buddy.”
“Most likely,” Dwight said. “That dong’s sex doll stuff. It wouldn’t be half as creepy without that damn thing. I reckon we’re going to have to hook the arms and legs to it, but I’m sorry as I can be but I’ll need to get a little drunk before we go about that. Not work for a sober man.”
“Yeah, I could use a beer or six. Shit,” Jack said. “I don’t really want that thing in my house. I’m sure there’s all kinds of historical import to it, but I’d just as soon some museum came and picked it up right now, and tracked the head part down on their own, too.”
“Yeah, you know the head’s bound to turn up now,” Dwight said. “Everything else coming together like this? This shit scares me, dude, I don’t mind telling you. And I pull crazy drunks over at 3 a.m. for a living. I ain’t skittish. But this is something different.”
Jack was rooting through the box, trying to find a note or something, but there was nothing. The packing papers were covered with odd geometrics that might have been some language, or possibly just a weird pattern. They looked printed with carved wood-blocks, like some craft-store wrapping paper. An aged spicy musk rose from them.
It had cost some money to ship it here, especially at the speed they’d used, almost overnighting it, and nobody wanted credit for it? Other than that revolting tacked-on dildo, the thing was a work of art. Disturbing, nightmarish art, yes, but undeniable art. Someone had carved a bad dream.
Without that sex organ, though -- and that could have been added by someone else, as it appeared stuck on, and the artist could easily have carved one if he’d intended it to have one -- would it really have to be so disturbing? Just a mannequin.
But finding that last leg, it being where a dream had told him it would be... that killed even the most far-flung notion of coincidence. Something was at work here beyond happenstance. Leading to what?
Jack and Dwight discussed that as they drank, and they found no answers. There were none. And since the supernatural had been at work in assembling the pieces, the figure itself was undoubtedly supernatural, too. Jack told Dwight about some of the crazy responses he’d gotten online -- voodoo, black magician Aleister Crowley supposedly trying to make robots (Google searches had turned up nothing on that), Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey’s mannequin fetish (Google had turned up plenty on that, but LaVey seemed like a goofball, more of an eccentric performer pranking an uptight society than anyone really evil). LaVey was a proponent of “android companions” and kept a fake tavern in his basement stocked with them.
A friend of LaVey’s, Dr. Cecil Nixon, had carved a sort of robot named Isis, who could play over three thousand tunes on a zither when given voice commands. Isis was filled with all sorts of fancy clockwork and only Dr. Nixon knew how to make her work. Jack had found pictures and printed them out, wondering if that was a possible connection. This figure seemed even older, though, and Isis had possibly been some sort of magic trick. The craftmanship looked much different.
None of it explained the dreams.
About eight o’clock they had enough of a buzz to forget the creepy circumstances of the thing’s accumulation and the possibility of its purpose and started laughing at it. Dwight had dubbed it a “dick puppet,” which they both found hilarious for some reason, and “Peen-nochio,” which was even funnier, so they decided to go put it together.
The arms and legs locked into the torso perfectly and easily. There was no effort involved, really -- you nosed the joining spikes into their housing and they practically drew themselves in, SNIK. There had to be some secret spring that’d pop them out again, but they couldn’t find it.
So, they had a wooden headless man. It was remarkably well-balanced and they could pose it and it’d stand on its own. It was a bit stiff and creaked horribly when moved, but, overall, it was an amazing piece of craftsmanship. It wasn’t hard to imagine that it would perhaps come alive, once the head got here.
For a highway patrolman, Dwight cut himself a lot of slack about drinking and driving. Tonight, though, he’d agreed he’d had too much, and would crash on Jack’s couch. That had happened a few times, and Jack didn’t mind. Tonight he was even grateful for it, so he wouldn’t be alone in the house with that thing.
Jack had a little trouble making it to bed himself. They’d drunk the world off its axis and the angles of everything kept shifting and the furniture kept rearranging itself by inches. They’d drunk enough that they’d gotten ready to chop the damn thing up and burn it in the yard, like one of those statues at that hippie festival, “whatever it’s called,” Dwight had said before Jack had remembered it was called “Burning Man,” prompting Dwight to propose a toast to the obvious. He’d gotten his machete out of the truck to hack it up, but then they decided not to, wanting to burn it in one piece, to see if it’d stand up through the whole process.
They’d moved on from beer to heavier stuff, which Dwight called “coffin varnish” until Jack had objected to him bringing up woodworking. They had enough woodwork for one day, didn’t they? They posed the thing on one leg like a ballet dancer and it stood there even when they threw beer cans at it. The balance was amazing, and the wooden tendons at the joints were rigored enough to keep it from falling in a heap. A masterpiece, it was. Maybe it was good that they’d be too hungover to burn it in the morning. Some museum would take it. And soon, Jack hoped, because he was intent on getting it out of his house before the head showed up.
The head. That’s what he dreamed about, over and over. He tangled in sweaty sheets, starting from sleep after dreams about that head. It was close now, he knew. In his sleep something called to him from the attic of a deserted house whose walls bore the algae marks of a flood. A box that came in the mail had something gibbering inside with a voice like nails being wrenched from wood. Dwight brought him a smiling thing he’d found in the trunk of a car after a crash with multiple fatalities. He dug something up in the crawlspace under his house, something that had been there all along and had drawn the other parts to it. In another dream he’d gotten a package that wasn’t a head, but skin for covering the body. God, would there be skin, too?
The dreams were coming in so fast they were on top of each other. He’d think that he’d woken from one only to find that he’d only dreamed about waking and it was still going. He woke up to answer a knock at the door and found someone there who smiled with wooden teeth. He got up to go to the bathroom and heard something in the shower, creaking. His penis crumbled and fell into the toilet.
He woke after a dream of bleating, coughing creaks, thinking I need that fucking thing out of my house. Morning was a long time coming but when it got here he’d dump it somewhere. He knew antique dealers and junk shops, somebody’d buy it from him, or, failing that, take it for free. He hated presenting them with the thing since it had that flaking rubber dick on it. It was embarrassingly obscene, but it was part of the historical integrity of the piece. Maybe he could put shorts on it for transportation purposes.
Dwight probably wasn’t sleeping well, either. Jack could hear him moving around in the next room. Sounded like he was in the rocking chair, really going for it, trying to rock himself to better sleep, chase off the bad whiskey dreams.
Can’t put it down to just whiskey, Jack thought. I’ve been having lousy dreams for weeks. Damn thing’s haunted. Sour vibes come off it like fallout, settling in my sleep.
Now that it was mostly put together, it was worse. How much worse would it be when the head showed up? And it would. That was almost certain. God, what would it look like? Some mild, smooth mannequin face? Some ornately-carved grinning incubus?
In one dream, Jack had seen his own face, rendered in walnut. That had been too much to take.
Since Dwight was already up, maybe they could dump the damn thing in the bed of his truck for the rest of the night. Maybe that’d cut down the dreams, getting it outside the house. Better than having to think about it, still standing posed in the kitchen.
“Dwight?” Jack yelled. “Hey, Dwight?”
The rocking chair creaking paused on the other side of the wall. Listening.
“Yo, Dwight, c’mere a minute,” Jack yelled, and it came out slurred. Yeah, he was still drunk. The bed was moving on him, little ticks to the left.
No answer. But the creaking started again, moving around. There was a clatter in the other room. Dwight still staggering drunk, too. Then the creaking was coming down the hall. Christ, was the idiot dragging the rocking chair with him?
“Dwight, what the hell, man?” Jack yelled. “What’re you doing?”
The creaking ruckus stopped in the hall, and there were sharp raps at his bedroom door.
Open up, it’s the piiiigs, Jack thought. He reached onto his bedside table for the penlight he kept there and beamed it at the door.
“Come on in, man,” he slurred, sitting up.
The door opened, very slowly, drunk-carefulness. The hall was dark. The penlight was dim, barely reached.
Dwight stuck his head in the door, a big grin frozen on his face. He’d been up to some mischief. Maybe he’d dismantled the damn thing.
He stood there, grinning in the dimness, until it made Jack’s skin crawl.
“Well, come on in, damnit,” Jack said.
Dwight poked his head further into the room, then stepped in with creaking, crazy jerky movements, and Jack screamed. It wasn’t Dwight. Dwight’s head, yes, but not his body.
Copyright 2014 by me.